OC Democrats call to change John Wayne Airport name

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John Wayne was a top box office draw for three decades, famous for his tough-guy roles in Western films. Now Orange County Democrats want Wayne’s name and likeness removed from the Santa Ana airport (SNA). They’re citing racist statements he made in a 1971 interview with Playboy magazine. At one point, Wayne says, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

LA Times reporter Gustavo Arellano has mixed feelings about the debate.

KCRW: Why is the airport named after John Wayne in the first place? 

Gustavo Arellano: “In 1979, shortly after John Wayne passed away, the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which had made no beef about how much they idolize John Wayne, named it in his honor. John Wayne had been living in Newport Beach for about 14 years, and Orange County felt so proud that the greatest American of them all was an Orange County man himself. 

The funny thing is that John Wayne himself hated that airport, as most people in Newport Beach do, because the flight path goes right over their homes.” 

What else did he say in that interview with Playboy? Is that the most controversial part of what he said?

“He’s going off against Angela Davis, against Indians. … He also admitted that when he was going to USC in the 1920s, he was a socialist, but he ‘grew up.’ He's coming out with really harsh language against African Americans and Native Americans. Even at the time, it was controversial.”

There were calls for the airport to change its name last year when that interview first resurfaced. What happened?

“Last year, the Democrats passed a resolution saying John Wayne does not represent Orange County of today. [But] the Republicans, who dominate the Board of Supervisors, they're not going to do it [rename the airport] because they see it as an assault on their liberties.”

Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne, came to his father's defense last year. He said any discussion of removing his name from the airport should include the full picture of John Wayne’s life, and shouldn’t be based on a single outlier interview from half a century ago. How would you respond?

“Oh come on, Ethan. It’s not an outlier interview. The John Wayne interview that I have in front of me is 20 pages. 

All that said though, it's easy to cast him as a complete, unabashed racist. But the complexities of John Wayne's life is even more particular to Orange County. 

Ethan Wayne is half Peruvian because his mother was Peruvian. John Wayne married nothing but Latinas. John Wayne's son in law, Gregory Muñoz, was the first Chicano judge in Orange County. And John Wayne's grandson, Matthew Muñoz, is a prominent priest in Orange County. So can John Wayne be truly racist if his children are half Latino and his grandchildren are three-quarters Latino?”

Do you think the debate will fizzle out?

“No, it's not going to go away. As long as the Board of Supervisors is dominated by Republicans, they're going to keep that John Wayne name. This will continue until there's a democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors. Frankly, what I would tell the Democratic Party is if you really want to rename something, rename the Thomas Riley [terminal]. He was a Supervisor during the Orange County bankruptcy of 1994. That's a bigger sin than something that John Wayne said 57 years ago.”

Do you think John Wayne's name should be on that airport? 

“Yes and no. 

On one hand, I don't think we should be naming it after a celebrity. Just call it Orange County Airport. 

But on the other hand, I love the schadenfreude. I love the embarrassment that comes with Orange County still having its airport named after John Wayne because we should always remember this is what Orange County used to be. And even what we are now.”